What is Healthy Eating?

Friends! This topic has been on my mind since we moved to France and experienced some major shifts in our eating. I’m dying to hear what your thoughts are. I’ve had lots of conversations about healthy eating with dear friends — and dear relatives too. But the thing is, it seems like in every conversation, there is a point I realize we’re talking about completely different things.

In fact, I’ve made a little list, and for every item on the list, I can think of someone in my life who focuses on that type of eating. Some focus on a combination:
Vegan food.
Raw food.
Organic food.
Plant focused meals (not strictly vegetarian).
No snacking.
Locally produced food.
Sugar-free food.
Minimally processed food.
Michael Pollan food. (eat food, not too much, mostly plants)
Robert Lustig food. (sugar is toxic)
Gary Taubes food. (don’t eat sugar, but eat lots of protein)
Fat-free food.
Gluten-free food.
Lactose-free food.

My own definition of healthy eating is definitely a moving target, so I’m not really interested in what’s right or best (I suppose it depends on the person). I’m just curious. I’d love to know: Right this minute, what is “healthy-eating” to you? Has your definition changed in say, the last 3 years? Have you read anything lately that has you excited about healthy eating? Please share!

Image by Ez, from this post about Creamy Broccoli Cheddar Soup

168 thoughts on “What is Healthy Eating?”

  1. I’d say the over-arching theme for my food strategy is REAL Food. Butter over margerine. Half-n-half over creamer. Minimally processed, no preservatives or ingredients that I can’t read. Less packaging. Organic and local when possible and practical. Last year we joined a CSA so we’re eating tons of local, organic produce and less meat, and that feels really good. But, I also believe in moderation. My kids had a soda last weekend…might have been their favorite day all year!

  2. Great topic! There are definitely varied opinions about healthy eating. My views on healthy eating have drastically changed in the past 3 years (which coincidentally is the amount of time from the beginning of my first pregnancy).
    We’re in the category of eat local, organic, low- or no-grain, no sugar, limit other natural sweeteners. So, basically pretty close to the Paleo diet although I don’t have any issues with eating dairy.

  3. We took out transfats about 12 years ago when friends thought I was insane for giving up certain foods. We have also taken out all nitrates as well. That’s hard to do overseas with deli meats, but we do what we can. It wasn’t until we lived overseas that I realized how much processed (and prepackaged) food Americans eat. For a while, I tried to make everything from scratching, including things like cream of chicken. I didn’t even know you could do this! But having kids makes it hard to do that. Basically, we stay away from as much processed food as we can and eat mainly small amounts of meat and try to eat lots of fruits, veggies and whole grains. That’s basically our guide. Oh, and for my husband and I, we eat a smaller dinner and try to do the bulk of our calories during the day. But I also change quite a bit. Never been into fad diets, but I do think the Michael Pollen way probably works the best for us.

    1. Great question, Tanya. It has for sure changed. For starters, we cook at home far more often, our ingredients are usually better quality (by that, I mean fresh and local), and we eat massive amounts of butter and cream. It’s shocking!

      I’ll have to write a full post about it.

      1. Please do write a full post on this, I have been living in America for five years and it has definitely changed my feelings on food, never in the three other countries that I have lived have food choices been so complicated and so disappointing as they are here in America. I dread going to the supermarket!

  4. i can too easily get drawn into over-thinking food and obsessing about certain ‘types’ of eating, and then feeling bad for not sticking to whatever that ‘type’ is. (for example, i tried going paleo once, but it lasted less than 48 hours.)

    so healthy eating for me, now, is a combination of balance and moderation. we try to get plenty of veggies, whole grains, fruits, and protein into our diet, and focus on eating things that are ‘real.’ that doesn’t mean that we don’t indulge in a bag of chips occasionally, or never have white bread in the house, but on the whole we try to ensure that the majority of our food isn’t highly processed. i have a big sweet tooth, too, and love anything that’s cheese or carbs, so i try my best to keep those cravings in check by indulging in small amounts and balancing it with healthier options. much harder these days now that i’m pregnant, though…

  5. I recently gave up eating meat after reading The China Study. It’s a very interesting book that I highly recommend. I also watched the movie Food Inc, which inspired me to change my eating habits. Loaded with a lot of good information. The challenge has been changing all my recipes and meals for my family of 6 to keep everyone happy. But it’s working, and I’m so happy I made the change. It’s been about 5 months and I don’t miss meat at all.

  6. my definition of healthy eating has changed drastically in the last three years. I used to bake nearly every day and consumed huge amounts of sugar until my body started reacting to it (yeast infections, bladder infections, fatigue). I devoured every Michael Pollin book I could find, watched countless documentaries on the subject of food and completely turned my diet around. I’ve dropped sugar completely from my diet, my family drinks green smoothies nearly every day, we eat lots of fresh fruits and veggies, and hardly any meat. We were big on whole wheat as well, until discovering that my daughter is sensitive to gluten, so we’ve also adopted a gluten free diet. Most people think we’re off our rockers, but we’re so much healthier now!

  7. The healthiest food is the most natural. Just have a balanced diet with as little “additives” as possible, and you’re there. I believe that is quite difficult in America as everything is so processed!

  8. Yes! In the last year I started reading wordofwisdomliving.com It sounds like it’s going to be some ultra-religious mormon blog, but it’s written by Inchmark’s http://inchmark.squarespace.com/ (Brooke Reynolds) dad Skip. He takes an approach that includes science and history. It’s a very practical, not over-the-top, approach. His ideas are focused on moderation, eating less meat, and returning to an unprocessed diet of more veggies and less junk. Healthy eating, to me, is eating more veggies, and less meat as well as cutting treats down to a minimum.

    I think the less processed the better. I don’t buy pre-made meals anymore, and we try to do desserts once a week. Everything tastes better but I do spend more time in the kitchen. I’m a housewife, so it works out just fine for me.

  9. I cannot believe the millions of references to healthy eating I have heard since moving to the US( a year ago), it did trigger a lot of reflection on my part . I grew up in France, ate ‘normally’ and never really questioned that I was on a healthy diet. I could not face all those trendy’ healthy diets'( not being judgmental I have no authority to say whether or not they are better for health) for a million dollars, I would go crazy cutting out dairy and sugar. It seems to me that the healthy eating movement is an answer to the crushing presence of industrialized food. I like to think that if we took cues from our grand-parents we shouldn’t have to go mad about the issue. In a world where every dish only had a few ingredients bought close to home , on a budget,carried back in a heavy basket all the way from the village, mixed at home and eaten there, people did not worry about the pound and a half of butter they had worked into the Sunday Kouign Aman.

  10. Absolutely! It has changed a lot in the last couple of years. For me it means real food- food as close to it’s natural state as possible with no or minimal processing, meat sparingly, lots of plant foods, aim for organic or food grown most naturally w/o chemicals or steroids, little sugar (not a lot of sweets and minimal amounts of added sugar), nothing addictive. I also like eating local food when possible because it is friendlier to the environment, tastes better because it is more fresh, and helps local farmers. I have read lots of books/blogs that have influenced my thoughts, some favorites are: scripture, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Animal Vegetable Miracle, wordofwisdomliving.com

  11. I’ve just recently started trying to eat healthier which for me means lots of fruits and veggies, good fats. protein, (meat or otherwise) and fiber. I try to avoid a lot of processed foods, but do indulge a little every now and then. My husband loves to bake, so there’s usually something sweet around the house, but he does it all from scratch, so I feel better about indulging a little.

  12. I went gluten free 2 years ago and am a changed mommy! I talk alot about it on my website (which actually is about music, but is now including healthy foods etc). My mentor started with http://www.greensmoothiegirl.com then branched out from there. It’s not a ‘diet’ it’s changing your whole paradigm about food and your lifestyle- because the standard American diet is NOT where it’s at. Most of the world has it already figured out, how to eat healthy. As a country we fell of the boat and are just recently get back on.

  13. I think healthy eating is really about eating fresh, locally grown, non-processed (as much as possible) foods. If something came out of the earth within a couple dozen from my house I think it’s great. I joined a local farm coop this year that is contracted with 22 farms in Massachusetts that will provide me with fresh, organic veggies & herbs, IPA fruits, locally made cheese, and freshly baked bread on a weekly basis.

    I also try and keep my sugar intake low…but I really, really love chocolate. So hard.

  14. While I certainly agree with so many of your healthy commentors, for our family right now, healthy eating also means letting go. I tend to drive myself (and others) crazy in trying to get our family to eat healthy. (More veggies! Less processed foods! aaaah! sugar! oh no!!) I have four little picky eaters under 10 years of age.While I realize what we put into our bodies is certainly important and can have wonderful or horrible effects on our longterm health – I also realize that for me – sometimes taking a big breath and a giant step back from all of the hype is what I need. Because fear and guilt and pressure associated with mealtime is *not* what I want to remember about feeding my family.(and not what I want them to remember either). So if that means I need to crack open the potato chips once in awhile along with our carrots and green smoothies, then so be it. Right now, my motto is BABY STEPS. If we can somehow be a little better in the next 6 months than we were before – then progress! woohoo! I have hope and I’ll keep offering them healthy options. But I have to admit: sometimes the “healthy eating” bandwagon drives me crazy – maybe because I want so badly for us to eat better than we do? Maybe because my kids are so picky that it seems like an impossibility? I don’t know. Sometimes throwing my hands up and ordering pizza really is healthy for our family. ;)

  15. Before my daughter was born, I did a lot of from scratch recipes like pizza and calzones for Friday nights. Although we still eat organic and eliminate most processed foods, I am still trying to get back to that place of doing more from scratch cooking with the best ingredients. Now that she is 3, she wants to help with all the cooking. Although fun, I better have a lot of patience and not take it to serious. http://bit.ly/AeWvQH

  16. For me, eating healthy means trying to cut out all (or as much as possible of) the artificial additives such as flavour enhancers (glutamat etc), coloring and conservants. It’s tricky and sometimes more expensive but for me, its absolutely worth it.
    Also, i’m not eating much bread, pasta, cookies and the like because it makes me feel bad and always crave more and more. I do eat potatoes and grains, though, which feels like the healthier choice for me.
    And i’m a sucker for candy. Not so healthy but I think it’s all about the dosage. So I’m far from cutting out carbohydrates altogether.

  17. I would wanna quote “my honest answer”‘s comment. I absolutely agree with it “lots of vegetables, lots of variety, a little bit of everything and no food off-limit”. But, i would add, avoid processed foods, dyes . I grew up in France and was taught to eat “healthy” with a little fun here and there, dessert guilt-free. I’ve been living in the states for close to 15 years now and still eat the same way. My 9 year old son has autism and isn’t on a strict diet, but i do have to say that i buy way more organic than i would have even thought to do at some point.
    Eat well, eat variety eat with pleasure, guilt-free. Voila!

  18. For me and my family, it is a combination of things. Lots of fruits and vegetables, protein, water, low sugar. There are certain fruits I will only buy if they are organic (like strawberries and peaches), same thing with veggies (like spinach and potatoes), but the rest (like bananas and broccoli) I just buy at the local grocery store. “To Buy or Not To Buy Organic” is a fantastic book that has helped me understand organic vs. local vs. sustainable, and what is really important to me. We eat more chicken than beef – the chicken is organic, free-range, and the beef is grass fed. We try to stay away from the processed foods, but I work and have 3 kids, so…you know how that goes. I do make all our dinners from scratch (no more hamburger helper).
    Hope that helps!


  19. I’ve recently lost 45 pounds, so I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot. I’m familiar with both abundance (of food that wasn’t very good for me) and deprivation (at least that’s what it felt like when I took the fries away), but now I’m really trying to focus on healthy abundance and nurturing my body through giving it really healthful foods. I imagine my path will take me through many of the variations you listed here! Life is such a blessing (thinking about your WW II post). I’m going to try to give love to my body and spirit and keep the happiness going, and focus more on what great things I’m giving my body than what things I’ve eliminated.

  20. Great question! And great answers in the comments.

    I’m not sure if I’ve figured out what exactly defines healthy eating, but I’d like to believe that real food is better than manufactued (butter vs. margarine) and everything is okay in moderation.

  21. Oh, this is such a hard hard thing to work out and something I think about all the time. I’m impressed with what the http://www.westonapricefoundation.com has to say. Check out info on Sally Fallon’s book Nourishing Traditions http://www.amazon.com/Nourishing-Traditions-Challenges-Politically-Dictocrats/dp/0967089735/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1330373452&sr=8-1 too if you get a chance. They are all about whole foods, grass fed meats, raw milk, fermented products… basically things other cultures prepared and ate that was life giving.

  22. I’ve realized that healthy living is a journey, not a destination. It means always learning more about our bodies and foods. Also, a big thing is to just not buy unhealthy stuff at the store, whatever that means for you. That way it’s not an option when your blood sugar crashes or you get PMS cravings. I just try to enjoy food and have it make me feel good.

  23. EAT FAT TO LOSE FAT. Eat real food to feed your cells. This is the motto our family lives by. My children also devour the foods listed…Whole-milk, raw dairy. Kefir, Viili, fermented veggies, properly prepared grains and legumes in moderation. Coconut oil before meals and for frying. Coconut milk. Grass-fed and/or organic butter, poultry and beef. Lots of veggies. Homemade bone broth. Kombucha, water kefir. Moderate amounts of caffeine, unprocessed sugar and alcohol. We feel great! http://www.eatfatlosefat.com/

  24. I’m 67 and have been through many changes in my (and my family’s) diet, but always returning to vegetarian food. I just don’t want to eat dead animals—it’s as simple as that. I also have gardened for 35 years, which has added immesurably to the quality of food we eat. It’s worth every cent to buy the best quality of food you can find–don’t give your hard-earned money to junk food purveyors. And I strongly urge everyone to consider the reality of what you are doing when you eat dead animals. Thanks.

  25. Like Maddy, I’m all about balance. You have to find the balance that works for you. I eat sweets, and even process foods (gasp!). I eat them in moderation, and I eat my fruits and veggies too. We’ve made a few simple, realistic changes like ground turkey instead of beef, soy milk, and whole wheat bread. For my family, we have to make changes that are sustainable. We couldn’t be/don’t want to be vegan, so that’s not a change we can make. We try to eat in balance and be aware of our intake.

    Besides, what is life with out brownies, I mean really.

  26. Chandra @ConsultantMom

    I’m trying to define it for my young family as we speak. I recently enjoyed this: @unhealthytruth: youtu.be/rixyrCNVVGA

    It motivated me to begin a subscription to an organic fruit/veggie delivery service.

  27. Eat when you are hungry. Stop when you are full.
    That is the most important thing for me. Apart from that i eat mostly organic at home but when i eat out I order whatever looks delicious to me.
    I don’t like the thought of eating dead creatures, so I eat mostly vegetarian.
    Lots of sweets and chocolats though but I noticed I feel best, the more raw food I eat.
    I fed my 3 year old daughter raw and blended fruits when she started eating solids additional to brestfeeding and she didn’t have a drop of cowmilk or a bite of meat before she turned one.
    She is the most healthiest child you could imagine and until today she eats apples and dried fruits like other kids eat chocolates. She eats lots of chocolate too though. And gummi bears. And half a cucumber a day if we didn’t forget to buy one. She just doesn’t make a difference between healthy and unhealthy food.
    When she got tons of chocolates around christmas, she started saving them up and offering them to her playdates when they came over.
    She just had a few herself and then she stopped when she had enough. I let her snack as much as she wants, so she is never super starved, I think that is a good trick to prevent kids from overeating. Sometimes she eats a lot. Sometimes she doesn’t. Just like me.
    Her eating habits and her health make me very very happy and I like to think it is because of my exsample. Maybe I am just lucky.

  28. Always eat breakfast. One tablespoon of black strap molasses a day is a great source of iron. Organic produce is best if possible. Grape seed oil is best for high heat cooking. Soak grains and nuts to maximize your ability to digest them. Avoid sugar and white flour and rice. Eat when you are hungry and drink lots of pure clean water throughout the day.

  29. This topic makes me crazy…not in a bad way because I’m facinated by it…but because it seems like such an all-consuming facination with so many “right” answers.

  30. My idea of healthy eating has definitely evolved. As of today, a healthy eating day would be at least 50% raw foods and staying under my calorie limit. That’s it! Since adopting these two practices I feel better than ever. I can still eat out, indulge in a treat, or partake in social settings, but I have a cut-off amount. (I do follow the Mormon Word of Wisdom to the best of my ability as well).

  31. We stay away from processed or prepared foods. I remember my mother telling a story about having moms from the neighborhood over when we first moved to the States from Sweden. She had made a cake and the ladies loved it. When they asked her what the mix was, she had no idea what they meant! She didn’t understand the concept of “scratch” cooking—all cooking was scratch to her. Now that I have a family, I try to live by that approach. We eat whole foods and organic as much as we can. We have a CSA share as well as an organic/humanely raised meat share (I forced myself to go to the farm to check it out). Getting food from the veg farm, often having picked it myself, makes me so happy. I feel the food is bursting with goodness! Apart from my favorite dark chocolate and wine and pasta, we try to make most things “from scratch.” We don’t eat as many muffins that way! But in the end, we are flexible. I truly believe that eating food should be a source of joy, and this is what I hope to pass on to my son.

  32. I’m mostly michael pollanesque. I think that Mark Bittman made that idea even more accessible.

    Real food is so so good, isn’t it? I live in Santa Monica, and I’m happy to be in a place that celebrates good, real, delicious food in so many ways.

  33. real food. (non-processed, non-genetically engineered)
    whole food when possible.
    raw when possible.
    but not obsessive to make too much of it for my own attitude or in my attitude towards others’ choices.
    and a healthy dose of dark chocolate.

  34. This is a familiar conversation situation! I recently found this blog http://www.wordofwisdomliving.com (i think it come to me via a post somewhere about Alt) and I think it’s great – an open conversation about nutrition. I also like Michael Pollan and since buying his Food Rules 2 years ago (coinciding with starting my family) I’ve tried to keep his rules in mind and in the main try to avoid processed food and refined sugar. I like any dairy products to be organic. I also believe that if we can afford to indulge in luxuries like iPhones and holidays we can afford to eat free range eggs and meat.

  35. Anyone mention Nourishing Traditions? That book/diet shook up every belief I had about healthy eating and seems to do well with my family but…….every body is different so why should there be one prescribed diet. We are hoping to grow and raise most our own food and that seems healthy for body, soul and pocket book.

    I also like the idea of moderation and have since adopted what I call “intuitive eating” which allows for treats when I need it!

  36. For three years I dabbled, but now I’m pretty consistent with a Paleo/Primal/Cave Eating template. I really like the way ChrisKresser.com is able to educate about this, especially for women trying to get pregnant, who are pregnant, and for young children. Also, the book Everyday Paleo is wonderful for cooking for young children, and picky husbands :-)

  37. For my family right now, healthy eating is a versus. Teddy Grahams versus The Good Cookies. It’s also “Well, At Least He Ate Something” during dinner and “We’re Going to Wait Until Lunch in 45 Minutes To Eat.” We try our best to find a fruit item just for Toby at the grocery store every week, and make sure we all have plenty of good cereal options.

  38. For me, healthy eating lately has meant having a healthier RELATIONSHIP with food. Not eating because I’m bored, or tired, or angry, etc. It’s more about recognizing when I’m actually hungry and what my body needs than just eating what I crave or what is my favorite food at the moment.

  39. I really like this question. I think it’s interesting that the answer to what is healthy can be so evolving, but I feel like there are few things that are constant and those are what I’ve come to define as healthy:

    real whole foods – as close to the original form as possible (lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains)
    limited sugar – as far as treats go, homemade is always better!
    ingredients that I recognize and can pronounce
    very limited processed food

  40. There’s a blog called wordofwisdomliving.com I’ve been following it for the last year and it has really helped me make sense of all the craziness that surrounds “healthy eating.” The author, Skip Hellewell, is really down to earth and his weekly Healthy Changes have had a huge impact in the way I feed my family.

  41. We follow the basic “do’s” of the Word of Wisdom. Little meat, lots of grains and vegetables and fruit. I think it was inspired way before it’s time.

    And to cut down on the cost of our grocery bill, I don’t buy snacky things for our kids or convenience foods. It is cheaper to cook and bake from scratch. And it takes up less cupboard space.

    1. I stopped buying pre-made snacky things for the kids, too. And now, if she really wants a snack, my daughter will eat fruit! (Or baking or smoothie popsicles.)

  42. Love the topic of what constitues “good food,” but am finding ironic the juxtaposition of the McD’s ad at the top of your blog with this topic . . . . but I digress.

    We also love the “Eat food, mostly plants, not too much” mantra
    We could never follow the no sugar mantra – we bake too much in our house and I would rather he have treats that I know I have made from organic ingredients.

    Finally, one of our main mantras:
    Avoid food that comes in a bag/box and has a toy.
    We have NEVER strayed from this one and our son doesn’t even know what McD’s is or any other fast-food joint (although he does know Starbx – http://liayf.blogspot.com/2011/09/mermaid-spotting.html).

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